Ask people what Destiny is and you'll get plenty of different answers. It's an MMO. Or a cooperative shooter. An action-filled space opera. If you believe the marketing, it's an aggressively bold interactive experience that's never been attempted before. If you ask me, it's a dungeon crawler. Full stop.
If you peel away its well-oiled shooting mechanics, look past its social ambitions and set aside the grandiose affectations of its universe, you will find Destiny's loot-driven heart, pulsing with a familiar rhythm. Meet friends in town, visit a dungeon, slay monsters, gain loot and level up, regroup in town, repeat.
In many ways, Destiny makes this old rhythm feel vibrant and fresh, though not without missing a few beats.
Destiny is Bungie's first major game in over a decade without the word "Halo" in the title, but fans are bound to notice some similarities in the story. Destiny takes place in the distant future. You are a Guardian, a mostly silent hero awakened by an artificial intelligence that hand-picked you to help save the galaxy from an ancient threat. Tales of the fated "chosen one" are nothing new, but Destiny's isn't very well-told, and most of the fault lies in the vague, indefinite nature of nearly every major player.
Imagine a universe with the magnificent scale of a Star Wars and the elevated, gauzy glow of a Lord of the Rings movie. Now imagine all of your favorite Star Wars characters have been replaced with nondescript archetypes: The Rogue, the Knight, the Princess, the Beast. That might sound like an oversimplification, but the main characters in Destiny literally have names including the Speaker, the Traveler, the Darkness, the Queen and ... "the queen's brother." Your Ghost, a floating AI robot that guides you on missions, is known only as "Ghost." Your character is never given a name at all, beyond "Guardian" and whatever your PSN or Xbox Live name happens to be.
With a couple of exceptions, notably the manipulative Queen and her untrusting brother, characters have very little personality. Meanwhile, there's not much reason to attach yourself to the avatars of capital letter Good and Evil, which are a giant white sphere and a nebulous black void, respectively.
Of course, we rarely descend into dungeons for the thrilling narrative. We're here to slay monsters, level up and collect loot. In that respect, Destiny excels. As you begin your adventure, you'll wander the Tower, where you can buy new gear and socialize with other players. (Well, you can dance with them, but you'll have to send an invite if you actually want to talk to someone.) From the Tower, you launch into orbit and blast off to another planet. At first, you'll only be able to explore a dilapidated Russia on Earth, but ultimately you gain access to the Moon, Venus and Mars. On these planets, you can follow your Guardian's crusade to stop the Darkness in various missions.
Regardless of your chosen mission, the end result is essentially the same: Shoot lots of aliens and reap the rewards. Destiny's gunplay rests somewhere between the more methodical shooting of a Halo and the twitchy blasting of a Call of Duty. Your Guardian is limited to three weapons: a meat-and-potatoes primary weapon, a more situational special weapon and a devastating heavy weapon. Primaries tend to focus on assault rifles and the like, while special weapons veer toward shotguns and sniper rifles, and heavy weapons are confined to machine guns and rocket launchers.
In addition to your weapons, each character class also has a few unique abilities. I opted for the Hunter, a class focused on precision. Each class has its own grenades, melee attacks and "Supers," powerful techniques that can clear a room. The Hunter, for example, whips out a golden revolver with three rounds, each capable of downing most enemies in a single shot. Titans, meanwhile, slam the ground with tremendous force for area damage, and Warlocks can hurl a hefty ball of energy that explodes on impact. You earn new abilities – different grenade types, passive stat tweaks, etc. – as you gain levels, giving you plenty of incentive to slice through enemy hordes. Eventually, you'll unlock more "subclasses," which grant you entirely new skill trees tailored to different kinds of play. The Hunter's second subclass, for example, is all about speed, stealth and melee damage, replacing the Golden Gun with the Arc Blade, essentially transforming you into an unstoppable, electric ninja.
Mowing down enemies is fun, though it can grow monotonous as the basic rhythm of combat rarely changes. Regardless of which alien race you're fighting (there are four), the best tactic is to aim for the vital parts and start slamming the trigger. Later enemies try to change this up, either by making center shots more effective than headshots or by hiding behind a shield, but the rule of "find the weak point and shoot" usually applies. Tougher enemies generally pack more destructive weaponry and denser health bars, rather than upping the challenge with more complex behavior and abilities. Bosses can also be disappointing in this regard, as they are often just oversized versions of the enemies you've already been fighting.
Likewise, mission structure relies heavily on reusing the same kinds of encounters. Seemingly without fail, every single mission contains at least one moment (and probably more) during which you have to stave off waves of enemies while your ghost hacks, unlocks or otherwise interacts with some computer system. That's fine – this is a game about shooting aliens, after all – but some more variety in objectives would have been nice. (This is as good a place as any to mention Patrol missions, tiny objectives obtained as you freely explore each planet. These are universally boring, usually asking you to kill X number of enemies or go to point Y and "scan" something. Patrols are good for finding hidden loot chests, working on bounties or killing time, but not much else.)
Still, the actual mechanics of taking out enemies are great. As you gain experience and gear, you create beneficial loops of chaos. For example, let's say your helmet has a buff that shortens your grenade cooldown every time you land a melee attack. As a Hunter, I might stab all of the nearby grunts to recharge my sticky Flux Grenade, which I can then lob into a crowd of more intimidating baddies. Having slaughtered all of these goons, I have enough energy to activate my Arc Blade, allowing me to flit across the room and plunge my electrified knife into a pair of pesky snipers.
These loops fit nicely into the larger loop of completing missions, earning experience and returning to the Tower to claim rare equipment, and the occasional monotony of combat is soothed by the acquisition of new abilities and gear. Deepening this addictive spiral further is the fact that higher-level pieces of gear have their own unlockable upgrade trees, making them more powerful over time. Throw in Bounties, experience-boosting challenges that persist between missions, and you have a recipe for losing several hours of your free time.
Naturally, all of this is best shared with friends, and Destiny allows you to form three-person Fireteams to dive into any mission. Strike missions are designed specifically for three players, culminating with a nasty boss battle, and generally give you the most bang for your multiplayer buck. Having friends livens up the "stand and defend" moments as well, lending them an air of Halo 3: ODST's Firefight mode or Left 4 Dead's campaign finales.
If your alien bloodlust subsides, you can hop into the Crucible, Destiny's competitive multiplayer component. There's not much to it, honestly, with only four modes focused primarily on deathmatch variants. "Control" comes the closest to an objective-based game type, in which players compete to control specific points on the map. The more of these areas you control, the more points you are awarded for killing opponents. Bungie has the ability to enable special game types – and has already done so over the launch weekend – but those looking for purely objective-oriented modes may be disappointed.
Your Guardian – equipment, abilities and all – carries over into the Crucible, and playing competitive matches will earn you experience for the main campaign. Destiny is still very young, so I can't speak to how balanced it is, though the Crucible is supposed to normalize player levels to keep things as fair as possible. Of the four modes, Control is most interesting, especially with a team of friends.
Where you land on Destiny probably depends on how much you really need a nice new pair of boots or a Legendary gun. Destiny's endgame – basically anything that happens after you hit level 20 – opens up much tougher variants of completed missions along with greater rewards. You'll also gain access to new character vanity options, like custom armor colors and accessories. If you have the desire, you can grind missions to earn special currency to buy Destiny's most coveted gear.
Bungie is also promising new missions and content over the coming months, starting with the first 6-person "Raid" mission this week. There are also two expansions on the way, with the first arriving in December.
Even so, whether or not you'll dive back into Destiny after clearing its base content probably depends on how much all the shiny treasure tickles your pleasure center. If you just want to shoot things with friends, you'll enjoy your time with Destiny, even when you're mocking the lame story. If, on the other hand, you love the loop – town, dungeon, loot – you'll be more likely to stick around after the story's over.
This review is based on a pre-release retail copy of the PS4 version of Destiny, provided by Activision. Images: Activision.
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